History & Culture

The Beginnings of Zionism
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Thursday 23rd April 2015

Based on extracts from Israel: A History

Ideology, politics, diplomacy, and war each have their place in this narrative, as do the stories of many individuals – some famous, others not – who contributed to the building of the State. The original pioneers came mostly from the Russian Empire, but they were supported by Jews from across the Jewish world.

Since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, the dispersed Jews prayed for a return to Zion. “Next year in Jerusalem” was the hope expressed at the end of every Passover meal. However, for two millennia that dream seemed a fantasy, and Zion, which had been under almost continuous Muslim rule since the seventh century, and under Ottoman rule since 1516, was possible only for a few.

In addition, the perils of the journey could be severe. Of 1,500 Jews who travelled from Eastern Europe to Palestine in 1700, as many as 500 died on the way. Nevertheless, the imperative to return never died. In 1777, more than 300 Chassidic Jewish families made the journey from Poland and in 1812, some 400 followers of the Vilna Gaon journeyed from Lithuania. Such that by the middle of the 19th century, about 10,000 Jews lived in Palestine, mostly in Jerusalem with a few hundred in Jaffa, Safed, and Tiberias. There was also a small community in the town of Peki’in which had a tradition of continuous Jewish settlement since Roman times.

But in the second half of the 18th century, things changed dramatically. In 1862, a German Jew, Moses Hess, proclaimed in his book, Rome and Jerusalem, that Jewish “nationality” was connected “inseparably” with the Holy Land and the Eternal city and advocated their return. And in 1876, the British Christian writer George Eliot stated in her novel Daniel Deronda: “Revive the organic centre; let the unity of Israel . . . be an outward reality.” It was to make its impact on many Jews, among them Eliezer Ben-Yehudah and I L Peretz.

At the same time, in Russia, following an upsurge of violent attacks against the Jews, two movements were founded, urging the emigration of Jews to Palestine. One was known as Bilu, from the Hebrew initials in the biblical phrase Beit Ya’akov Lechu Ve-nelcha (House of Jacob, come and let us go!). The young men and women of Bilu, being secular and socialist in outlook, omitted the con- cluding words of the phrase: “in the light of the Lord.” The second Russian-born movement was Chovevei Tziyon (Lovers of Zion).

As a result, over 25,000 Jews reached Palestine between 1882 and 1903, in what became known as the First Aliyah. The Jewish population of Jerusalem tripled, having already been a majority there since the 1850s, whereas others lived by tilling the soil and by recourse to the financial support of the Rothschild family. Jewish migration saw the steady settlement of small groups of pioneers on the land.

These moshavim – often named for Zionist or biblical leaders and places – gradually transformed the landscape. Philanthropy also played a very strong part in the building up of the Jewish community. The Bezalel art school was funded by a German philanthropist, and an American Jew, Nathan Straus, provided the funds to set up a Jewish hospital in Jerusalem.

Yet among the sophisticated and assimilated Jews in Western Europe, there was little interest in Zionism. Palestinian Jewry was seen as an exclusively religious community, although the trial of Alfred Dreyfus would change that, especially for one man: Theodore Herzl. An assimilated Jew, who had not circumcised his own son, he was shocked by the harsh Anti-Semitic tones of the criticism of Dreyfus.

The trial was actually a watershed for many Jews generally. They asked themselves what had gone wrong; what caused this Anti-Semitism? Three ways out seemed to present themselves: to assimilate into the nation with whom one was living, to fight for a revolutionary socialism that would cure all the evils of the world including Anti-Semitism, or to seek a “normal” Jewish life in a Jewish land with a Jewish government. Herzl was drawn to the last option, especially when Vienna, where Herzl lived, elected Karl Leuger – who headed an Anti-Semitic political party and openly denounced the Jews – as mayor in 1893.

Some of those to whom Herzl expounded his ideas considered him insane. The first Rothschild whom he approached ignored his letter. But he found an ally in the physician and philosopher, Max Nordau, who told him, “If you are insane, we are insane together!” Herzl’s Judenstadt was a major influence in the emergence of political Zionism. He pointed to the part played by Anti-Semitism in bringing the Jews to their existing situation. “We have honestly endeavoured to merge ourselves in the social life of surrounding communities and to preserve only the faith of our fathers. We are not permitted to do so. In vain we are loyal patriots.”

He formed a congress in Basel in 1897, and on 3rd September wrote in his diary, “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word, it would be this: at Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in 50, everyone will know it.”

One of the attendees at the second congress was a 23-year-old bio-chemist from Ukraine. His name was Chaim Weizmann, and in time he became President of the World Zionist Organisation and eventually of Israel itself. Concerning the Jews, he said: “We have, throughout our history, not disappeared among the nations with whom we have lived. We have remained different: different in religion, different in outlook . . . The moral effect of this situation, combined with an age-long tradition of attachment to Palestine, has made us what we are.”

In the ten years following Herzl’s death (1904), the Turkish government was unwilling to grant the Jews any autonomous region in Palestine, but Jewish settlement – especially from Russia and Romania, where there was unabated persecution – continued to grow. In 1906, David Gruen emigrated to Palestine, having been twice arrested during the Russian uprising in 1905. On arrival, he took on the Hebrew surname Ben-Gurion.

In 1909, a town was established on the sand dunes just north of Jaffa. It was called Tel Aviv, and became known as “the first all-Jewish city.” In the north, a Romanian-Jewish poet, Naphtali Herz Imber, wrote a poem, Hatikvah (The Hope), which was to become the Zionist hymn. Imber read the poem to the farmers of Rishon le-Zion, one of whom, Samuel Cohen, set it to music.

The religious aspect of Zionism was actively personified by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), who became the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine in 1921. He was a noted Jewish thinker and scholar, who tried to build channels of communication and political alliances between the various Jewish factions. As a result, in 1913, he led a group of the most distinguished rabbis of the Old Yishuv – representing the full gamut of Orthodoxy – to tour the new moshavim in the Galilee and Samaria. Over the course of one month they visited over 20 settlements, to inspire the pioneers to the importance and eternity of Judaism and Torah, whilst simulta- neously demonstrating to the accompanying rabbis, the idealism of these young secular Zionists.

World War I eventually brought with it the Balfour Declaration, but did not address the issues of Arab nationalism. When the militantly radical Haj Amin el Husseini became the leader of the Palestinian Arabs in 1921, any possibility of dialogue between the Arabs and Jews in Palestine was lost and it led to the Arab riots of

1921, 1926, 1929, 1933, 1935, and 1936.

Eventually, in 1936, the Peel Commission raised the idea of partition, a plan that was accepted by the Jews and rejected unilaterally by all Arab parties (as was the case with the UN vote for partition in 1947) and the years that followed brought about an increasingly hard-line attitude from the Arabs to Jewish immigration, even as Hitler’s plans were coming to fruition. In 1945, with a new Labour government in Britain, Zionist aspirations to independence suffered a setback, which would bring about a bitter fight in Palestine for two years, and would not be adequately addressed until the UN vote in November 1947.

From ISRAEL: A HISTORY by Martin Gilbert

Published by Doubleday

Reprinted by permission of The Random House Group Ltd